Abstract: “Success in the Air”: The growth mindset, social trust, and identity safety in a diverse, low-income middle school (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

12801 “Success in the Air”: The growth mindset, social trust, and identity safety in a diverse, low-income middle school

Saturday, January 16, 2010: 3:30 PM
Golden Gate (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
Kate M. Wegmann , University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Doctoral Student, Chapel Hill, NC
Metta R. Prieto, MSW , University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Research Assistant, Chapel Hill, NC
Natasha K. Bowen, PhD , University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Associate Professor, Chapel Hill, NC
Purpose: This study examines two socio-environmental characteristics (climate and instructional practices) that enable one public charter middle school in North Carolina (Success Middle School; SMS) to foster high achievement among all of its students. Students are succeeding at SMS despite facing commonly cited risk factors for low achievement, such as a rural location and a diverse student population that is predominantly African American and low-income. Current literature states the importance of socio-environmental characteristics such as: identity safety to combat stereotype threat in students of color, the role of the environment in fostering positive or negative stereotypes in children (Steele, 2003), “critical caring” or mattering relationships between students and school staff (Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981; Valenzuela, 1999), and the belief in intelligence as a malleable trait (Dweck, 2006) in promotion of academic success. By examining characteristics of an effective school that is beating the achievement odds, we can learn specific strategies for further creating school climates that encourage the potential of all students and promote social justice.

Methods: One 45-minute class period in each of six randomly selected classrooms at SMS were observed and videotaped over a two-day period. Eight middle school students, six teachers, and the school principal were interviewed, following a semi-structured interview schedule.

Interview data were coded using AtlasTI, first with iterative open coding (Padgett, 1998), followed by application of sensitizing concepts. Codes were then organized into a graphic network that illustrated code hierarchies and relationships, which was compared to features of three sensitizing concepts: growth mindset, mattering, and identity safety.

Results: Specific examples of how the sensitizing concepts were enacted in the classrooms/ school and emergent themes and phenomena related to creating an environment of school success were identified. Multiple levels of relationships (student-teacher, student peer, and colleague relationships among teachers and administrators) proved essential to an environment of mattering and identity safety. Teachers developed personal relationships with students that allowed them the freedom to enforce academic and behavioral standards without alienating vulnerable students. Also, the supportive peer relationships gave teachers the ability to take risks in the classroom and develop their professional skills without fear of reprisal. Finally, students felt strong cooperative responsibility to their school and to each other, generated in part by a school focus on teamwork rather than competition and recognition. Growth mindset practices, such as peer observation and mentoring, were common on all levels of relationship. Growth mindset messages permeated the school environment, such as the non-negotiable expectation that every child will go to college. Children were also explicitly taught messages regarding the malleability of intelligence, the importance of effort in academic tasks, and the role of metacognition in learning.

Conclusions and Implications: Analysis of the study data supports the importance of the growth mindset, mattering, and countering stereotype threat. Data analysis revealed how the growth mindset and mattering pervade the atmosphere and relationships in this school, which is successfully promoting achievement for all students. Concrete strategies for replication and better promoting student success in other high risk schools were gleaned.